“Lincoln” – My Complaints, Part II

With “Lincoln” in the running for best film at the Oscars this weekend, I feel like I’m a grumpy, kill-joy, nit-picking, griping curmudgeon of an historian.  After all, I am devoting not one but two entire posts to my complaints about the film.

So let me repeat an earlier point:  it’s a great film.  Go see it.  See it twice.  I’m serious.

Then, read some good histories of the Civil War.  This will give you a more complete picture and a deeper understanding than Spielberg leaves you with.

This is where my grumpy, kill-joy, nit-picking, griping, curmudgeonliness is coming from:  Spielberg’s film, by itself, gives us a misreading of how abolition came about.  It misses the critical part of the story.

Consider this question:  who is the real hero of abolition in the United States?  Is it Abraham Lincoln?  Hmm.

Let us return to 1860.  In that year there were almost 22 million people living in the northern states that would soon make up the Union.  How many of those northerners were abolitionists?  The numbers are hard to determine with precision, but about 2% of the population belonged to or supported abolitionist societies.  It’s important to understand that one could be antislavery but not an abolitionist.  Many northerners did not like slavery, did not want it to spread to the West, and/or thought it was morally wrong. Many of these same northerners, however, worried that setting free 3 million blacks would create huge

William Lloyd Garrison did not get invited to many dinner parties.

social, economic and political problems for the nation.  They did not want to mess with the system.   So abolition was a very unpopular movement, even in the north.  That’s why William Lloyd Garrison was nearly lynched by a mob in Boston.  That, and the fact that he was obnoxious.

Abolitionists were trouble-makers.  And Lincoln was not among them.  Although he was actually well ahead of many white Americans in his views on race, equality and antislavery, he still had some issues to work out in 1860, as I explained in my previous post.

Now jump ahead to 1865.  Lincoln was firmly, sincerely and rather masterfully pushing through the 13th Amendment.  He was supported by almost all the important Republican politicians, many soldiers in the Union army, and a great deal of the American public.  Lincoln, and many white northerners had turned into abolitionists in less than five years.

It was a remarkable transformation.

How did Lincoln, and many northern whites like him, come around to this position?  Now this is a movie I’d like Spielberg to make, though I’m not sure what he would call it.  “Lincoln:  the Prequel?”  “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Lincoln?”  “Lincoln and the Phantom Abolitionist Menace?”

Here’s the point:  Abraham Lincoln was led down this path by the unexpected and complicated events of the Civil War.  So, if you are looking for heroes who pushed Lincoln on the abolition issue, you can turn to African Americans.   And abolitionists.

Consider the role of blacks and Union policy in 1861.  At that time the Union was not fighting to eliminate slavery.  When slaves ran away and made their way into Union army camps, Union officers were instructed to return them to southern masters.  Free blacks who volunteered to fight were turned away and were not allowed in the Union army.  These were all official policies established, approved and enforced by Abraham Lincoln and his administration.

Blacks began violating those policies.  Newly freed blacks in South Carolina and Louisiana formed regiments on their own, anyway.  A black man, Robert Smalls, took it upon himself to steal a Confederate ship in the Charleston harbor and sail it out to the Union blockade.  A group of blacks in Kansas formed a regiment on their own and actually joined a skirmish against Confederates.

More importantly, slaves, who were considered property by both southerners and War Department policies, refused to behave like property and sit still.  They kept running away to Union camps when the armies got close enough.   In the summer of 1861, General Benjamin Butler saw the military logic of holding on to this property that kept landing in his lap.  If slaves were property, as the logic goes, and the rules of warfare allowed an army to keep property of the enemy as contraband when it fell into their hands (think guns, wagons, ammunition, horses, etc.), then slaves could be declared contraband when they made their way into the hands of the Union army.  The War Department eventually saw the military logic of this position, changed its policies, and declared that slaves who had worked for the Confederate army would be declared “contraband.” But the Union would not accept other slaves working for private landowners, the War Department (and Lincoln) declared, because it was not, after all, trying to eliminate slavery in the southern states.

As the fighting of 1861 continued on into 1862, the Union kept on losing key battles.  This helped the cause of abolition.  I love the irony here.  Every Union loss and every Confederate victory brought the nation closer to eliminating slavery.

How?  Black and white abolitionists kept making arguments that the Union could defeat the Confederacy by abolishing slavery.  Slaves made up 40% of the Confederate population, they argued, and provided the labor for most of the Conferedate economy.  Slaves made up one third of the workforce of the primary Confederate producer of armaments, the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond.  More than half of the miners in southern iron, lead, and salt mines were slaves.  Why not encourage the elimination of slavery, since most northerners already thought it was wrong, and help the war effort at the same time? As Frederick Douglass declared, “To fight against slaveholders without fighting against slavery, is but a half-hearted business.”

And so Lincoln brought forth the Emancipation Proclamation in late 1862.

The abolitionists were right.  Emancipation greatly aided the Union war effort.  Consider this:  over the course of the war, 500,000 slaves ran away, the vast majority after the Union had changed its policies.  That’s 1 out of every 8 slaves.  Not only did this weaken the workforce for the Confederate military and economy, but 200,000 of those freedpeople joined the Union military system as unlisted laborers.

And then there were the black soldiers.  Lincoln and the War Department were reluctant to put guns in the hands of blacks, but blacks persisted in their desire to fight.  In early 1863, abolitionists pressured the governor of Massachusetts, John Andrews Albion, to form black regiments.  The governor, in turn, pressured Lincoln to allow him to present the Union army with two regiments of blacks.  Lincoln finally agreed.  There were more political battles over equal pay and allowing blacks to fight (the film “Glory” captures this well).  But in the end, 185,000 blacks fought for the Union army, the vast majority of whom were slaves who had run away.  Consider this number in light of the fact that Robert E. Lee typically had about 50,000 to 70,000 soldiers under his command when he fought in Virginia.

By 1864, most Union soldiers had come to realize that abolishing slavery would help them win the war. A great book detailing why soldiers fought in the Civil War, For Cause and Comrade, by James McPherson, demonstrates this effectively.  Lincoln had become firmly converted to the cause of abolition by 1864, as were many Republicans.  So the time was ripe, in early 1865, to pass the 13th Amendment.

This, then, is how the paradigm shift occurred:  a few whites first became convinced that abolition was necessary, just by the sheer morality of the issue.  But most whites first became convinced that abolition was necessary because it would help them win the war.

This is how human nature works.  It is hard to see and do what is right when it costs us something.  It is easier to see and do what is right when everyone else (and the cultural norms) uphold what is right.  It is easiest to see and do what is right when we also get some benefit in return.

My biggest complaint with Spielberg’s Lincoln is that it gives the impression that one great, pure man brought about “the greatest measure of the nineteenth century.”  The reality is that while most of the country followed Lincoln’s lead, Lincoln was following the lead of runaway slaves, free blacks and abolitionists.  And none of this would have come about but for the unpredictable and unanticipated events of the Civil War.

Let me be so arrogant as to suggest that Lincoln probably understood this.  Though rather unorthodox in his Christian beliefs, he did believe very deeply in providence.  He also believed that the ways of God were mysterious and hard to discern.  Lincoln did not believe that any individual or collection of individuals could overrule providence and by sheer will or masterful politics, compel events to conform to one’s expectations.  I give Lincoln credit for that. (An aside:  for a great discussion of Lincoln’s role in the theological debates over the Civil War, click here).

I also give Lincoln credit on another score.  Many people today think we are fully baked and incapable of transformation.  That’s probably true if we are unwilling to change.  But Lincoln was willing to change his views of abolition and racial equality.  It came first through his primary desire to save the Union and defeat the Confederacy.  But he was changing in the end, which is more than can be said for many others. That, it seems to me, is a more admirable quality than political astuteness.

It was a transformation that came about because of the actions of hundreds of thousands of African Americans whose names we will never know.




“Lincoln:” My Complaints

“The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”    – Thaddeus Stevens.  Supposedly.

“I can’t play Lincoln. That’s like playing God”   – Henry Fonda



Isn’t it just like a historian to complain and nitpick about the flaws of a good movie?  You may not know any historians, but I do.  We are like that.  Just ask my daughters.

Yes, I have complaints about this very good film, “Lincoln.”  And frankly, they are not insignificant complaints.

My first complaint:  Steven Spielberg has a tendency to confuse Abraham Lincoln with Jesus Christ.

To be fair, he is not the first.

It has been a habit for Americans (particularly from the north) during the last century to make Lincoln into a demi-god.  As a result, it is very difficult for any of us to get an accurate bead on this guy.  Before I ever became a history major in college, my own

Is this person like anybody you have met?

mythic impressions of the man were shaped by dollar bills, luxury vehicles, pennies, granite monuments, state capitals, high schools, toy cabins, highways, Illinois license plates, and a trip to his boyhood home in southern Indiana when I was about ten, which left me with a memory of his mother’s tombstone set in a dark woods.  That was kind of creepy.  This image was balanced, or further confused, by a particularly memorable cartoon (which apparently is not shown on TV anymore because of its racial stereotypes) where Bugs Bunny suddenly appears in a stove-pipe hat, beard and long black coat and says in a deep, serious voice (to Yosemite Sam, who plays a Confederate officer), “What’s this I hear about you whippin’ slaves?”  It’s just difficult to imagine Lincoln as a recognizable human being with all this material buried deep in one’s subconscious.

Let me, then, give Spielberg credit for making Lincoln look less than perfect in a couple of key ways.  Lincoln gets deeply frustrated with his family (an unavoidable response if one were married to Mary Todd Lincoln) and even strikes his son in one scene.  And throughout the film, Lincoln struggles with his conscience as he tries to reconcile his high anti-slavery goals with the dirty process of politics.

And, yet.

While Spielberg’s Lincoln wrestles with the ethical dilemmas of dirty politics, he never seems to waver in his rock solid conviction that everything must take a back seat to ending slavery.  And unlike most everyone around him, he doesn’t doubt that blacks deserve full legal, political and social equality.  This Lincoln is inspiring.  This Lincoln is thrilling.  This is the Lincoln that every (white) moviegoer wants to be.

And he is not the real Lincoln.

Now it is reasonable to argue that, for those weeks in January of 1865, Lincoln was firmly convinced that he had to get the 13th Amendment passed.  The film does, after all, only focus on these few weeks.  But by leaving out (or just plain missing) the Lincoln of 1862, the Lincoln of 1861 and the Lincoln of 1858, we end up with a Lincoln who is, in the words supposedly spoken by Thaddeus Stevens, “the purest man in America.”

Historians know better.  Most Americans do not.  Spielberg is like Disney:  his portrayal of a story will become the definitive version.  So his Lincoln will be what the next generation of Americans remember and believe about Lincoln.  That’s not all bad, but there are problems.

Any high school history teacher worth her salt will tell you that Lincoln’s highest desire had always been the preservation of the Union and that his antislavery convictions came in second.  Lincoln always opposed slavery – he was consistent about that throughout his life—but his first love was for nation-state.  That meant that in 1862 he did not have the power to abolish slavery in the southern states, especially if it meant damaging the Union as it was presently constructed.  He wrote, famously, to Horace Greeley in the summer of 1862, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” In his First Inaugural Address in 1861 Lincoln reassured the southern states that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” 

Obviously, Lincoln changed his mind between 1861 and 1865.  That is the key.  Lincoln’s greatest internal struggle did not revolve around whether to stoop to log-rolling and horse trading and playing dirty politics in order to push through the greatest measure of the nineteenth century. His biggest dilemma was whether or not he really ought to push through the greatest measure of the nineteenth century in the first place.

Nor does Spielberg’s Lincoln deal effectively with the real Lincoln’s internal struggle with his own racism.

Ouch.  Painful subject.   We are OK if our demigods have minor flaws, but it is just too much to attach racism to them.  Better just leave those questions alone.  Spielberg accomplishes this task masterfully.

The reality is that Lincoln believed blacks had the right to freedom but he was not sure that they were fit to live as social equals with whites.  Some samples:  In his famous 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said about the black man, “I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects–certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment.  But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every living man.”   Hmm.  He fudges a bit on social equality, though he does come out pretty strong on a type of labor equality.  But then we have this declaration in another debate with Douglas:  “While I was at  the hotel today an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and the white people.  [Great laughter.]….I will say then, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races–[applause]—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarrying with white people; and I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of political and social equality.”

And lest we think that Lincoln, that wily politician, was simply saying what he did not believe in order to curry support from racist voters in Illinois, we have other evidence.  For instance, in the summer of 1862 he met with black leaders to try to convince them that they ought to embrace colonization.  This plan promoted the wholesale migration of free blacks to some other country.  In this case, he asked them if American blacks would move to Central America.  His justification?  “Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong afflicted on any people.  But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race…. It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”  (The African American leaders politely, but firmly, refused).

The purest man in America?


But it is at just this point where Christian theology is far more helpful to us than the modern faith in human purity.  (Or the modern faith in the human purity of a few select heroes and demigods).  Why should we be surprised by Lincoln’s racism?  Abraham Lincoln, like you and me, was a sinner.  More importantly, (and this is a point that many evangelicals miss), Lincoln internalized social norms and cultural patterns that were also a product of a fallen world.  In other words, we also inherit cultural sins, most of the time without even realizing it.  Lincoln, like the vast majority of white Americans of the mid-nineteenth century (and arguably just about every white American of that era), was socialized by a culture that viewed blacks as inferior.  To greater or lesser degrees, this racism came out in his behavior and attitudes.

In one sense, Lincoln could not help the fact that he was shaped by a racist culture.  But that does not make the racism of nineteenth-century whites acceptable.  It was still wrong.  It still harmed others.  It still prevented Lincoln and others from loving their neighbor as themselves.   And it demonstrates one way that original sin operates on humanity – through the cultural norms and practices that shape them.

It is not surprising, then, that those who do not believe in this kind of sin desperately want Lincoln to be a pure and shining example to all of us, one that we might be able to achieve if we just try hard enough.  Nor is it surprising that we buy it.  That reaction fits well with Christian theology also.

Strangely, perhaps, this is not my biggest complaint with the film.  That will come in my next post.





“Lincoln:” A great, flawed, film.

I finally saw the film Lincoln this week.  Since I am an American historian who actually teaches a class on the Civil War, my tardiness on this bit of film-going might qualify as a professional embarrassment or even a dereliction of duty.  However, I am here to vow that in the future I will try to become more responsible on such matters.

Thus, my analysis:  the film is significantly flawed and everyone should see it because it is excellent.

If that sounds a bit like I am from Kentucky, trying to support both sides of the war, so be it.

I’ll give you what I truly loved about the film now and save its flaws for my next post:

1) Daniel Day-Lewis is brilliant as Lincoln.  His Lincoln was the most compelling Lincoln I have seen, a folksy Midwesterner with a high-pitched voice whose hidden depths of calculation, intelligence and resolve led others to underestimate him, as was true of the real Lincoln.  Several times I consciously asked myself whether this Day-Lewis was the same grizzled oil man who sat in a saloon barking, “I drink your milkshake!” in There Will be Blood. I do need to confess, though, that I developed some affection for Day-Lewis’ Lincoln because his wry humor, gentleness and patience reminded me of my Unkenholz uncles from North Dakota.  (That is correct.  My mother’s maiden name is Unkenholz, so I have Unkenholz uncles.)

2) The material components of the film effectively transport one back to the world of 1865 Washington D.C.  The over-stuffed Victorian furnishings, the muddy roads, the telegraph wires nailed to posts hanging above the politicians in the war room, and so much more.  In one scene Seward wears a yellow silk Japanese robe, even though only a handful of people know he was an avid collector of Asian artifacts.  Nice touch.  The principal characters look remarkably like their historical counterparts:  Stanton, Seward, Gideon Wells, Mary Todd, Robert and Tab Lincoln.  For instance, check out this “Slate” article comparing the film characters to their real counterparts.  (They didn’t quite capture the stunning ugliness of Francis Preston Blair, Jr., though.  Maybe this was out of respect to

Daniel Day-Lewis or Abraham Lincoln? Only his hairdresser knows for sure.

Hal Holbrook.)  Steven Spielberg makes great use of Day-Lewis in profile, often in silhouette, where he looks strikingly like the Lincoln images we are all so deeply familiar with. (I should point out that the material elements are the easiest parts of a historical film to get correct.  Getting the beards and doorknobs right do not make a film historically accurate, as some people think, but they do make one feel historically embedded, which is something.)

3)  The film wonderfully captures the deal-making, logrolling, posturing, compromising, horse-trading politics that we get in our American democracy.  It is a bit over-dramatized, but that is what helps make it hit home.  A friend from church remarked that she realized from the film that politicians are politicians and that what we get in Washington today is not new.  Yup.

4) The film gives us a good dose of the human dilemma of how to fight for high ideals in the midst of a fallen world.  It seems that Spielberg ends up supporting a Machiavellian stance that one has to play dirty and corrupt in order to bring about noble accomplishments. I have a problem with that theologically and historically, but since my understanding accounts for the grace of God in human affairs, I don’t really expect Spielberg to get that.  What he does get is how difficult the dilemma can be.  I had tears in my eyes when Thaddeus Stevens found himself struggling to decide whether he should reign in his long-standing rhetoric of racial equality in the hopes that it would help the pragmatic goal of passing the amendment to end slavery.

5)  Finally, I do not wish to go on record as an avid supporter of tearing others apart, but I can’t help but admire the finely flung insults in this film.  Eloquence at least takes some of the malice out, if for no other reason that one is rather impressed by the cleverness of the thing.  Two cheers for the insulting political oratory in Lincoln, then.  I was reminded of that master of the English-language insult, William Shakespeare.  From King Lear, Act II, Scene 2:

“A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a
base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a
lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson,
glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;
one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a
bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but
the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar,
and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I
will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest
the least syllable of thy addition.”

You should see the film.  And read my next post as to why it is flawed.